Kiribati and climate change: we have a moral obligation to do our part

February 13, 2018

There's been much reflection in this place in the last week about morality and ethics. It's been on the front page of the papers for the last week. I want to use my time today to say that I think one of the most fundamental parts of morality—an obligation that all of us have—is to leave this planet a better place than we found it, whether you're a Christian, an atheist, a Jew, a Muslim or whatever. The fundamental tenet of most ethical teaching is to improve your world and leave the world a better place for your children and grandchildren, if you're lucky enough to have a family.

That brings me to climate change, which I think is the greatest example of that obligation now. Today, I had the honour and privilege of meeting with a delegation of teachers and activists from Kiribati. Kiribati is a small network of islands in the Pacific. It has 120,000 people, so it's roughly the size of one of our electorates. It is two to three metres above sea level and less than 100 metres wide in most places. The delegation of brave and passionate people pleaded with politicians in this place to help save their nation, which is at the forefront of the impact of climate change. I talked with Claire, a teacher, about water salinity issues and the fact that, because of the rising sea level, which is due to climate change, the wells that they get their drinking water from are being poisoned by salt water. She talked about how access to drinking water is a fundamental human right. I talked to another teacher about schools being washed away, flood damage and the drastic damage to taro crops, which is their staple diet in Kiribati. I talked to Debbie, who works for their sporting commission, about sporting fields being lost and the loss of potential sporting champions. I talked to Maria, who made the point that this is one of the poorest nations on earth and yet they are suffering from, quite frankly, the outcome of industrialisation around the world—industrialisation that's lifted billions of people out of poverty but, at the same time, has spewed carbon dioxide into the air, causing the greenhouse gas warming that we're seeing right now.

It is within this context that I talk about the existential threat to Kiribati and other islands in the Pacific and how we have a moral obligation to do our part. We are the 12th-largest polluter in absolute terms, but we're the highest in terms of per capita in the developed world. Let me repeat that: we emit the most greenhouse gas emissions per person in the developed world. We have a moral obligation to do our part in this global challenge to combat climate change and save nations like Kiribati. And it's in this context that I rail against our woeful emissions reductions target of 26 per cent by 2030. The government's official target is woefully inadequate. What's worse is that we have no hope, with current policies, of meeting it. The government's own emissions projections say they will not meet that woefully inadequate target, and it's the people of Kiribati who will be suffering because of that result.

The Labor Party has a much stronger contribution—an emissions reduction target of 45 per cent by 2030, with net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which is in line with the Climate Change Authority's recommendations and in line with what other developed nations in the world, such as the UK and Germany, are doing. We have a concrete plan to achieve it. I don't talk about our policy as a way of playing us versus them. This issue should unite this parliament. It's united the parliament in Germany and it's united the parliament in the United Kingdom, where it is not a political issue. So, this week, when issues of morality and ethics will no doubt dominate the headlines and will no doubt dominate question time every day, I urge everyone to reflect on our obligation to leave this planet a better place than we found it; an obligation to hand to our kids and grandkids a better situation than we inherited. I think our generation could be the first one that doesn't leave it a better place. I urge everyone to play their part and be passionate and campaign for concrete action on climate change. We owe it to our brothers and sisters in Kiribati, we owe it to our kids and grandkids and we owe it to every human being on this planet to do just that.